The Keys of My Prison
Frances Shelley Wees
London: Jenkins, 1956
Is The Keys of My Prison typical Frances Shelley Wees? If so, she's a writer who deserves attention. If not, the worst that can be said is that she wrote at least one novel worthy of same.
The beginning is quiet and subtle. In the well-appointed private room of a Toronto hospital, devoted wife Julie Jonason sits watching over husband Rafe. Ten days earlier, he was involved in a car accident. Rafe's been unconscious ever since, poor man, but he is improving; Dr Prescott expects a full recovery. Julie has ever right to believe that things will eventually return to normal. Then Nurse Burnell enters and mentions, as casually as possible, that that morning her patient had mumbled something about a woman named Bess.
Polite, contemplative, dedicated, diligent and sober is Rafe, but the man who emerges from the comatose state is none of these things. This Rafe denies he's Rafe and doesn't recognize his own wife. "And who the hell are you?" are his first words to Julie.
Doctor Prescott determines that the best course of action is to transfer the patient to the family home; a familiar environment is sure to restore his memory. And so, Julie is forced to share the Rosedale mansion built by her father with a crude, intemperate man who downs drams of whisky, keeps ungodly hours and might just be an impostor.
The Keys of My Prison is an exploration of identity, of course. That psychology plays such a part brought Margaret Millar to mind, though the similarities extend far beyond the psychoanalytic trends of the post-war era. The novel takes place in Millar territory: here are the comfortable Torontonians found in Wall of Eyes (1943) and The Iron Gates (1945). The novel also shares something with Millar's An Air That Kills (1957) in featuring a car accident that takes place between Toronto and cottage country. And then there's the dialogue… Not one Canadian writer of the time matched Millar, but Wees comes close.
If The Keys of My Prison is Frances Shelley Wees at her very best, she rose to the level of the average Millar.
That's a high watermark.
The third and final edition appeared in 1966 as a Pyramid Books paperback. It has been out of print ever since.
Access: My American cousins will have an easy time of it. The bad news is that in this country the novel is held only by Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library and six of our universities. The good news is that used copies are cheap. At US$5.00, the cheapest is a library discard of the Pyramid edition. Ignore that. The copies most worthy of consideration are:
- the lone Jenkins edition, despite its "tatty" dust jacket. £4.00;
- a Very Good Doubleday in Very Good dust jacket. US$14.50;
- a Near Fine Doubleday in Very Good dust jacket, inscribed to Wees' doctor and his wife. US$25.00;
- a Very Good Doubleday in Very Good dust jacket, inscribed to a person or persons unknown C$50.00.
There is one translation: Das Gefängnis seiner Wahl (Frankfurt, 1960).